I have been thinking from time-to-time about how we achieved religious tolerance in the western industrialized countries, and how we can preserve it here, and possibly introduce it in Muslim countries. So I decided to blog about it.
Religious tolerance is a remarkably complex phenomenon which I can't hope to address in a single blog posting. Nevertheless I'm going to start with some thoughts and see where it takes me. The reason it is so important is that it seems key to avoiding war with Muslims and perhaps others, not to mention certain kinds of political conflict within the US.
The odd thing about tolerance is that it seems like a rather untenable position for a religious person to take. If you think your religion is right, and it involves an all-powerful deity who has set down laws for you to follow, and who condemns you to eternity in hell for failure to do so, then surely you will do everything in your power to follow these laws. If other people have different laws, then there is a serious conflict. This conflict ultimately resolves into the laws of the state. Each religion must surely want the laws of the state to include all of their religious laws. Surely it would be wrong to allow the will of the majority to override the will of the supreme deity.
Yet, in spite of this logic, we find that in the western industrialized world, the vast majority of people have in fact become willing to submit to the will of the majority in almost all cases. In the US a somewhat smaller majority accepts the constitutional separation of church and state, although many fundamentalist Christians do object to this provision.
I am going to argue that, even though people think that their morality comes from God, it actually comes from society, and it changes over time. Even though people may think that God's morality is unchanging, they are wrong. Bible literalists can always find quotes that can be interpreted to support current morality, but these are rationalizations. In reality, the quotes and the interpretations change over time.
After fighting religious wars and persecution in Europe for hundreds of years, people have come to accept religious tolerance as a preferable, if imperfect, alternative. Over time people have come to believe that God favors tolerance. The old testament clearly commands God's people to kill other people who have the wrong religion. But the new testament is taken to override this, even though this seems to be saying that God was wrong when he wrote the earlier rules.
Let me just give two further examples which show that current morality is unrelated to scriptural morality: adultery and abortion. The bible makes it very clear that adultery is a serious sin and is punishable by death. People still think it is a sin, but very few think it is a capital crime. If you did think it was a capital crime, you would have a serious problem with the secular state, which not only tolerates adultery, but if you do God's will and kill an adulterer, it is you who are guilty of murder. Yet no one has any problem with this.
Now abortion is a different matter. The bible actually says nothing about abortion at all. It is never mentioned. Both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advocates can find quotes in the bible that can be interpreted to justify their position. Now the pro-life side is adamant that abortion is murder, and it drives them crazy that the state refuses to treat it as such. They have somehow become convinced that this is God's will and God is really pretty upset about it.
What about the Muslim world? It would appear that, despite fighting among themselves for 1400 years over the question of the inheritance of religious authority from Mohamed, they have not yet developed widespread religious tolerance. Sunnis and Shiites remain mostly divided along national boundaries, and where there is substantial mixing, there remains a high level of inter-sectional violence -- i.e. Iraq. There is sometimes a grudging acceptance of other religions in some cases, but they are treated as second-class citizens.
How can we account for this? It is a gross simplification, of course, but I believe that the single most important factor is education. There is generally no secular public education available in Muslim countries. If a poor boy gets an education at all, it is often in a Muslim school called a madrasa. In a madrasa, the education consists exclusively of teaching and reading the Koran and other religious texts. So it is no surprise that this sort of education results in religious intolerance.
Of course there are many religiously tolerant people to be found within Muslim cultures. The reason is the same as it is in the more affluent countries. Among the better educated, more affluent middle and upper classes, religion tends to lose its standing as the sole source of moral authority. When they emigrate to non-Muslim countries, naturally they have little choice but to tolerate the religions that dominate in their new homes. Unfortunately, the religiously tolerant do not have either the political power or the moral conviction to establish tolerance as a secular imperative.
Is there any solution to this? Perhaps the best hope is education. If we could introduce and support secular education without appearing to interfere with local cultures this would have tremendous long-term value. This would take some years to have a significant effect, but it would almost certainly be cheaper and more effective than paying for endless wars. In the short term, we could attempt to support secular leadership wherever possible, again without interference.
You might conclude from the above discussion that I think religious intolerance is the only factor fueling anti-western fervor and terrorism. Clearly there are other factors, including nationalism and a justifiable anger over western interference in local governments. However, religion remains a factor, and the others are not within the scope of this blog.